With Friends Like These, Who Needs Slevin
By Fernando F. Croce

When it can serve as tag for both Letter From an Unknown Woman and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, it is no wonder the concept of the "chick-flick" remains elusory. Cinematic torture guys endure in order to score some head from their girlfriends, or a depreciative label attached by patriarchal society for an easy equation of femininity = weak? In any case, the chicks in Friends With Money are too busy living out their estrogen-soaked dilemmas to wonder what a movie their lives would make, particularly when said lives are far closer to cable. It's been pointed out that Nicole Holofcener, the writer-director, has helmed episodes of Sex and the City and Six Feet Under, though her breezy, seriocomic style had already been honed earlier in her previous efforts, Walking and Talking and Lovely & Amazing, indie darlings (and chick-flicks, if you will) about women's problems, made with a paucity of judgment and a warm, tart observational eye. Plenty to observe here -- Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack, and Jennifer Aniston, all getting their Sundance freak on. The quartet of gal pals meets for dinner, each with hubby in tow: McDormand and Simon McBurney (successful clothing designers), Keener and Jason Isaacs (successful movie writers), Cusack and Greg Germann (both rich, so no work is needed). Aniston is single and unmoneyed, phone-stalking a former flame and hounding shopping malls for free Lancome samples; she tidies up strangers' homes to make ends meet.

Is playing maid the hip new thing, the pals wonder. Not too far-fetched an idea for Angelinos with too much money in their hands, but no, scrubbing toilets is a financial necessity for Aniston, and, since her soul-searching carries more than a dash of masochism, blithe asshole Scott Caan, her new boyfriend, tags along to treat her like shit and get paid for it. Money matters, though the other women all have their own midlife baggage to sort through -- McDormand is getting slammed with menopausal ennui, so she slams back by refusing to shampoo her hair and yelling at people for cutting in line at Old Navy. McBurney loves cashmere and Nip/Tuck, thus, according to Keener, McDormand's in denial that he's "sooo gay," but Keener is the film's major myopic, bumping into furniture, stepping on Lego pieces and wondering why the neighborhood is pissed at her for building a second level to her house; she and Isaacs face each other in laptops to write their screenplay, but she can't look at him after he fails to get offended when she tells him he's got bad breath. Meanwhile, everything is hunky-dory for Cusack, who wonders if the four would still be friends if they met now. Holofcener wonders, too, but despite her knowing gracefulness in navigating each actress' distinctive wavelength, she never probes deeply into the class barriers she sets up for herself, the comedy of manners tidily grounded in Sitcomland. A duster is gingerly used on bourgeois mores when a scalpel was needed, but Friends With Money is still less complacent than Spanglish or any Woody Allen movie from the past decade.

*

From estrogen to testosterone, all for the worse. Waving guns, gangland shtick, and assorted Damon Runyonisms, Lucky Number Slevin aims to be as masculine as Friends With Money is feminine, yet if Holofcener was interested in people (or characters, at least), Paul McGuigan's elaborately hollow tough-guy arabesque cares only about its own faux-cleverness. The hanging air of snarkiness kicks in early, Bruce Willis (trim and steely here, following the interesting schlumpfiness of 16 Blocks) decked in a wheelchair at a surreally underpopulated airport terminal -- "It starts with a horse," then an anecdote about the thread of chance, detailing how an overheard racetrack tip led to the slaughter of a family. A "catalyst," and a digression before the story has even began. Or is it? Working in the shallow Usual Suspects template, it is all setup for the gotcha! punchline, and tactful sidestepping on the critic's part is needed to keep the pernicious surprises unspoiled. Hardly worth the bother, but here it goes -- Josh Harnett is Slevin, rounding a bad-day hat trick by losing job, home, and girlfriend on his way to New York, a smashed nose during a mugging the cherry on the ice cream. Staying at a friend's home, he falls into the film's glib mistaken-identity scheme and is hauled off, wrapped in a towel, to meet "The Boss" (Morgan Freeman) and "The Rabbi" (Ben Kingsley), rival crime lords perched atop towers facing each other. Just when things couldn't get more inane, a CGI camera swoop bridges the penthouses.

That so many reviewers are referencing Tarantino when describing the movie's flashy shenanigans is further evidence that many people still don't know how to read Tarantino: his pop attitudinizing and violence are duly noted, but not his self-reflexivity, soulfulness, romanticism. Indeed, McGuigan also displays a romantic touch in the scenes between our smart-ass patsy and next-door ditz Lucy Liu, whose flighty charm manages to almost breathe life into the Harrison-Ford-in-the-making concrete post that is Harnett. (A shot of Liu lounging in bed to Wendy Rene's "After Love (Comes Tears)" soothes the irritation of oh-so-hip yakking about actors who played Blofeld in Bond flicks.) Unfortunately, it's The Weinstein Company cruising for blood-drenched "edginess," and, having failed to snatch Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and The Ice Harvest, insisting on cheeky brutality and oafishly stylized patter, corpses stuffed in freezers and imbecilities like "Kansas City shuffle" repeated over and over as if to create new slang. The dialogue, which already sticks like peanut butter to the cast's maws, is peppered with slurs, "fairy" this and "darkies" that -- more lost-in-translation QT. "You're a conundrum, you," Freeman says to Harnett, but Lucky Number Slevin should be easy to decipher for audiences alert enough to notice that the hideous wallpaper designs in the characters' rooms haven't changed much since the 1979 prologue, just as hideous Pulp Fiction clones haven't changed much since 1994.

*

Back to chicks for Basic Instinct 2, and, since the chick is Sharon Stone, no indie stalwarts are needed for support. Her Catherine Tramell, who in the 1992 original swept trough San Francisco in a fucking-flashing-stabbing storm, has relocated to London, where another moist, black-widow web is to be spun around her newest horny fall guy, psychiatrist David Morrissey. An unacceptably, indecently tame movie, not even juicy enough for Skinemax; the screenplay's puns on the word "cum" channel Eszterhas badness, although the first Basic Instinct had Paul Verhoeven slyly whipping everything into both an attack and an extension of the sweaty, male gaze, challenged by a succubus without panties. The belated sequel, directed by Michael Caton-Jones sans vulgarity or style, is a total limp dick, yet Stone smuggles with her some of the original's sneaky humor. At 48, the actress is so assured in her skin, and so wittily knowing of the joke she's embodying, that her performance feels like a sybaritic private gig, set subtly set under the dullard director's nose. In Inside Man, the mayor dubs Jodie Foster a "magnificent cunt," but Stone illustrates it here with flesh and wit -- if only David Cronenberg were behind the camera...


Reviewed April 13, 2006.

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